Not every football coach would want to be Mike Vance this fall.

Vance is the new head coach at Cheverus High.

In other words, he is the man replacing John Wolfgram.

“Someone like John Wolfgram leaves and you almost feel bad for the guy who is truly brave enough to follow him,” said Sanford Coach Mike Fallon.

Being a first-year coach of a high school football team comes with plenty of challenges, such as forming a coaching staff and implementing playbook changes. If the new coach happens to be replacing a legend, those challenges are magnified by unfair but inevitable comparisons with his predecessor.

Make no mistake, Vance is replacing a legend.


Wolfgram spent the last decade of his 40-year high school coaching career at Cheverus and announced his retirement in April. In all – first at Madison, then Gardiner, and perhaps most famously at South Portland – he directed fundamentally sound, powerhouse teams. His teams won 309 games and 10 state titles, the last two at Cheverus.

Vance knows Wolfgram’s impact as well as anyone. He played tight end and defensive end for him at South Portland High, and was on Wolfgram’s staff at Cheverus the past 10 seasons.

Vance says his job isn’t to be the next Wolfgram. His job is to be the 2016 Cheverus football coach.

“I’ve just got to wake up and be Mike Vance. What else can I do?”

Others who have followed coaching icons have advice for Vance, hired in May from a pool of 12 initial applicants.

“You’ve got to be yourself. That’s as simple as it is,” said Brian Curit, the Biddeford coach who took over for Mike Landry in 1994. Landry resigned after guiding Biddeford to the 1993 championship, its sixth Class A title in 17 seasons.


“I couldn’t be Coach (Landry), and from what I know of Coach Vance, he’s a good guy, a smart guy, and he’ll do a good job.”

Mike Siviski agrees. The Winslow coach is now Maine’s active leader in football wins with a 244-80 record in 31 seasons, but he was once a rookie head coach taking over for Harold “Tank” Violette. Violette had been a star player at the University of Maine, then won two state championships while coaching at Belfast High and three more state titles during 16 years at Winslow.

“Mike Siviski shouldn’t copy Harold Violette’s personality. The new Cheverus coach shouldn’t copy what John Wolfgram did,” Siviski said, “but you do learn from those people.”

When it comes to replacing a legend, some coaches offered a time-worn bit of advice: Don’t follow the legend. Follow the guy who follows the legend.

Before becoming the head coach at Marshwood High, Alex Rotsko played the role of retiring legend when he left Longmeadow High in Massachusetts after the 2011 season. In 19 seasons, he guided Longmeadow to 15 straight Division I Super Bowl appearances, winning 11 times. Rotsko advised his assistants to think long and hard before making a decision to follow him.

A former assistant, Nick St. George, did take the job.


“Last year they had a great season, but two years ago they went 6-4 and that was a disaster there,” Rotsko said.

“I don’t know (Vance), but give him a lot of credit. Let’s face it. It’s a no-win situation.”

Sanford’s Fallon said he always thinks back to 1994, his first year as the head coach at Sanford. He was happy to be taking over a downtrodden team, knowing he could improve things (Sanford won the 1998 Class A title). That same year, his good friend Curit replaced Landry.

“They were the mecca of high school football,” Fallon said. “That was tough for Brian. Then in his rookie season he went and won the state championship. Obviously he’s done a tremendous job there, but still to this day I would not have wanted to trade with him.”

Curit, 52, knew what he was getting into. And he would make the same decision.

“The thing was, I was very reluctant. Talk about setting yourself up for failure,” Curit said. “But this was my dream job and my wife said you don’t know if you’ll ever get this chance again.


“I got the opportunity to coach great teams, great players, and some of those players who are now in their 40s I’m still close to.”

Vance probably knew what was coming when he spotted a reporter waiting for him at the end of the Stags’ first preseason scrimmage against Massabesic.

The reporter said he would be writing a story about the challenges of following a coaching legend.

“Of course you are,” Vance said, his quiet voice showing resignation and a hint of annoyance.

He is much more comfortable talking about his players and what he sees as a positive start to the preseason. During the scrimmage, it was apparent the Stags are enthusiastic and supportive of each other. Cheverus’ offense has been tweaked a bit but the philosophy remains much the same: power football with lots of running between, or just off, the tackles. Vance and his staff emphasize that team and community are greater than any one individual.

“We’ve talked a lot about respecting each other and these guys have bought in, which is good,” Vance said.


The first step for any new coach is earning players’ trust, Siviski said.

“And you need a good (coaching) staff,” Siviski said. “You have to surround yourself with a good staff and you also need some (talent). Coaching high school football at all levels is simply doing the best with what you have.”

Vance says his primary challenge is to successfully transition from longtime assistant to being a head coach.

“I haven’t asked for suggestions on how to follow someone else,” he said. “I have asked for suggestions on how to be a first-year coach, some of the things to expect. I have gotten some good insight from some guys. I’m a rookie head coach and I’m following my own mentor. He was my high school coach, but like I said, I just have to be me.”

Expected starting quarterback Jack Casale and starting fullback/strong safety Max Coffin have been diagnosed with mononucleosis. Both will miss at least the season opener.

Vance, 46, lives in Scarborough, where he’s a stay-at-home father with two young daughters. A graduate of the University of New Mexico, his first coaching job was on Wolfgram’s South Portland staff in the early 1990s.


He then was an assistant coach at Gorham, where his father, Jay Vance – who was Wolfgram’s teammate and offensive linemate at the University of Maine – was head coach, and at Scarborough before heading to Cheverus with Wolfgram in 2006. As junior varsity coach and defensive coordinator, Vance had a major role in Cheverus’ 34-game winning streak from 2010-12 that included Class A titles in 2010 and 2011.

Cheverus was 6-4 in 2015, losing to Windham in a Class A North semifinal.

If Vance asks, Wolfgram says he’s ready to offer counsel.

“They’re ready to be this year’s team and Mike is ready to be this year’s coach,” Wolfgram said. “Mike has a very strong self-identity and he’s ready to be a head coach. I’ll be there just to advise if he initiates anything.”

Cheverus’ close-knit, private school culture might also favor Vance, Wolfgram said.

“It would be more difficult in a community where that town lives or dies with football,” Wolfgram said. “There’s certainly a lot of pressure in that situation. Mike’s in a good situation. The bottom line is Mike’s ready to be a head coach.”

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